Simon Carr: We must be gullible to keep listening to these scares

We do provide a receptive climate for the bacillus of looming disaster

Share
Related Topics

Five years ago, I was wondering how our Indian summer of prosperity would end.

We had been basking in the long Edwardian glow of low prices, cheap labour, domestic servants, prosperity and growth. It didn't actually occur to any of us at the time that a credit crunch would do the trick; a collapse of confidence in our debt-repaying abilities. That was beyond imagining. No, it was going to be something more obvious.

War was the most likely, if you listened to those who relied on historical cycles. In 1714 the western world had fought itself to a standstill. Add in 1814 and 1914, and there were the grounds for a Nostradamus-style paranoia. What would be our equivalent of World War One?

Or maybe climate change would have caught up with us, to sweep us away in millennial winds (and maybe it yet will). Or again, maybe disease. The bugs would exert themselves and mutate into something we couldn't catch up with.

War, disease, the wrath of Gaia. "For we've lived so well, so long," as the singer sang it. We'd had a fabulous 50 years, and now we'd have to pay.

Now, here we are again. Eighty people have got a nasty flu and died in Mexico. May they rest in peace. But 200,000 of us die every day in the world, so the Mexican victims aren't exactly objects of rational fear. But the sentence that has been picked up and spun round the world says: "The World Health Organisation has warned that the [swine flu] virus has the potential to become a pandemic".

It sounds to us in the laity a bit like the Terror Level rating the Government puts out so that it can say, "We did warn you," if perchance a bombing takes place.

But it has made front pages all round the world. It is a pandemic of headlines. And the director of the World Influenza Centre has helped by saying of the outbreak and its future: "It's difficult to look on the bright side."

Actually, it is not at all difficult, with a little insensitivity. The bright side is that almost no one has been affected, there have been almost no deaths, we haven't had a major outbreak of flu for 40 years, there has been no swine flu in the UK for a decade, and also no one in Britain died of bird flu.

It may well be true that, virally speaking, H1 swine flu is "already worse than H5". But that H5N1 bird flu was hardly worth worrying us with at all. According to the World Health Organisation, 257 people have died of it in the last seven years, while the best part of a billion others have died of non-bird flu related causes.

Nonetheless, we were worried enough at the time. Avian flu was subjected to "detailed modelling" by the Department of Health.

It revealed "mortality estimates of between 50,000 and 750,000 additional deaths, depending on both the attack rate and case fatality rate". That is, in English, maybe 50,000 people would die or 750,000 people would die, depending on how many people died. In the event, nobody in Britain died.

Why we want to believe that 750,000 Britons are under threat of dying a miserable death through failure of the respiratory system isn't clear, but we do want to play with the idea. We do provide a receptive environment for the bacillus of looming disaster.

When Aids first came to prominence in the 1980s, it was widely accepted that most people would be infected over the next generation. The creation of misleading graphs, tortured tables and spurious argumentation was incredible. In the end, no one believed it. But we had to go through 15 years without Aids infecting most of us before we could accept it.

The Millennium Bug grew in a similar culture. The BBC estimated that $300m had been spent on preventing a global computer crash that would destroy the world's processing power. After nothing happened, the organisers of the prevention drive declared it a great success. But companies – and indeed countries – that did nothing performed as well as those who had spent the $300m.

Maybe these fears are what we have in a secular society instead of the Apocalypse. But there is one practical point we should take on board. If they – whoever "they" are – do get a good scare going, one prediction can make you rich.

Shares in Gilead Sciences (which holds the patent on the antiviral drug marketed as government-recommended Tamiflu) will bounce, along with shares in Roche, which has the marketing rights.

GlaxoSmithKline may also work (they produce Relenza).

Both drugs have apparently worked, in laboratory conditions, against the swine flu virus. Expect that the UK alone will be commissioning 30 million doses, paying emergency rates. The profits, at least, will be apocalyptic.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Digital Project Manager/BA

£300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An experienced Digital/Ecommerc...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Test Lead (C#, Java, HTML, SQL) Kingston Finance

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A Global Financial Service Organi...

Access/Teradata Developer, Banking, Bristol £400pd

£375 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Access / Teradata Developer - Banking - Bristol -...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: Waiting on the telephone, tribute to Norm and my Desert Island Discs

John Rentoul
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home